from Asia Unbound

Moored to Memory: The Problem of the Past in U.S.-Australia Relations

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) deliver brief remarks to reporters ahead of an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, aboard the USS Intrepid Museum in New York. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

May 12, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) deliver brief remarks to reporters ahead of an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, aboard the USS Intrepid Museum in New York. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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Now that the reverie aboard the USS Intrepid has receded into memory, it is time to ask just what, precisely, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull achieved on his recent visit to New York and meeting with U.S. President Donald J. Trump. First of all, there is no doubting the importance that the meeting took place. Ignore the criticism of President Trump for keeping Prime Minister Turnbull waiting and for cutting their exchange short. It would not have mattered which world leader was standing by in New York—nothing could have prevented the U.S. president from celebrating the passage of the healthcare bill through the House.

But if that criticism was unwarranted, so too was the feverish anticipation, among Australian commentators, for this first face-to-face encounter between the two leaders.
Much of that anticipation is attributable to the panic among a number of senior Australian opinion leaders following a rocky January call between Trump and Turnbull. In the wake of that conversation, the White House only reluctantly committed to honoring a controversial refugee settlement deal—signed by President Obama—whereby asylum seekers held by Australians in offshore detention camps will be resettled in the United States.

That the call provoked the hysteria it did among Australian opinion leaders reflects something of a paradox in how debate over the alliance is conducted in Australia. Critics of the relationship were quick to argue that Trump’s brusque tone was reason enough for Australia to distance itself from this administration. Equally, the alliance’s strongest and loudest advocates in the Australian media also cried foul, believing that Washington was not treating Canberra with the respect they feel it deserves. Australian journalist Peter Hartcher, for example, a powerful advocate of the alliance, labeled the call “a case of alliance shock for Australia.”

Turnbull’s visit to New York did not feature prominently in U.S. reporting. Then again, Australia rarely does. Its contribution to wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are not often mentioned in the United States, and U.S. presidents in memoirs of their time in office rarely allocate much, if any, space to dealings with Australian counterparts or to the alliance itself.

The pageantry aboard the USS Intrepid centered around perhaps the most powerful historical theme in the bilateral relationship: the United States’s pivotal role in saving Australia from a Japanese attack in the Second World War. The two leaders were there to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. In recent years, this heroic narrative of fighting together shoulder-to-shoulder has been broadened to include the two countries’ record in fighting alongside each other in every major conflict since World War I. 

Judging from the euphoric reporting in Australia in recent days, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that, prior to the New York visit, the alliance was on the brink of collapse. According to The Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, and that newspaper’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, the commemoration of the Coral Sea battle offered the idyllic setting in which President Trump could be inducted into the historic rites and rituals of the bilateral relationship.

But the alliance was never in crisis, despite one difficult phone call. It is deep and broad enough to prosper even if the leaders in the respective capitals do not have a strong personal relationship.

In any case, the “testy” phone call in January between Turnbull and Trump was nowhere near as contentious as U.S.-Australian discord over the Suez crisis in 1956—when Australia supported the British and French military action against Cairo, ignoring President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s call for restraint. It is nothing like the divergence of approaches between President John F. Kennedy and Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies over how to handle Indonesian President Sukarno’s claims on West New Guinea in the early 1960s, and Sukarno’s policy of confrontation with Malaysia. Canberra supported the Dutch retaining control of West New Guinea, and wanted U.S. guarantees of military assistance in the event of Australian forces coming into conflict with the Indonesian military during Sukarno’s confrontation policy.

On both counts, Canberra was disappointed by the response from the White House.  In the case of West New Guinea, Kennedy argued that it was better to assuage Sukarno’s nationalism rather than push him into the arms of the Indonesian communist party. In addition, in the event of trouble over Malaysia, Kennedy only promised logistical assistance to Canberra.

Any tension today is also nothing remotely like the frustration felt by Australian Prime Minister John Howard in 1999. Then, U.S. President Bill Clinton refused to commit U.S. ground troops under the banner of the United Nations to stop the bloodshed in East Timor, triggered by the fall of the Suharto regime and Timor’s process of separating from Indonesia.

In New York, Prime Minister Turnbull sounded rather more confident than most allies in the region about the future of the U.S. administration’s Asia policy, which remains in flux. Far from watching how that policy begins to settle, the Australian leader argued that the “commitment to the peace, stability [and] the rule of law” in Asia had been ”renewed by President Trump, for which we thank you.”  

But as history shows, Turnbull should not assume that the pomp and pageantry on display aboard the USS Intrepid means that the president will treat Australia differently from other US allies in the region. The cold, hard facts for Canberra—proven time and again since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951—is that the United States will—quite properly—act in a way that maximizes its own interests. No U.S. president in the past has allowed the bilateral history to cloud their assessment of U.S. priorities in the Asia-Pacific, especially those related to China, Indonesia or the structure of regional strategic and economic architecture.  Is there any reason to believe that this would change with Trump? The proposition is highly doubtful.

The event in New York thus perpetuates a grand Australian delusion. It assumes that the United States will elevate this kind of sentiment above its own self-interest when it comes to the conduct of its foreign affairs. It allows hope to dictate to judgment about where Australia might sit in U.S. priorities.  Australia may well be more important to the US now than at any time during the Cold War: a point of reassurance for Canberra.  But that doesn’t mean that Australian and U.S. interests will always align.

The mooring of the relationship to memory means that the harder conversations that Washington and Canberra need to have may become more difficult to initiate. But these conversations must be had—about China’s rise, Beijing’s progressive militarization of the South China Sea and, above all, renewing the public arguments for the importance of the U.S.-Australia alliance. The conversations are all too easily lost amidst a sea of complacency and nostalgia.

James Curran is professor of History at Sydney University and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

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